There were times in Ukraine’s recent history when even the country’s military brass were kneeling before the U.S. Literally. In June 2013, then-U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine John Tefft received the saber of the Ukrainian Cossack in the city of Kherson from a kneeling Ukrainian high-rank military official. Mr. Tefft nowadays is serving the country as an Ambassador to Russia where no such honors are even imaginable.
But that was then—a previous regime.
On the surface, today’s Ukraine is much more favorably disposed toward everything Western and everything American because of the exciting wind of transformations that swept through the Ukrainian political landscape last year. Its political culture looks modern, attractive, refined and European. For example, at the end of last year a new law was passed that allowed former citizens of other countries to participate in Ukrainian politics and even the government, in case they denounce their former citizenships. The reason given was the fight with notorious Ukrainian corruption. Apparently, in a country of more than 40 million people, Prime Minister Arseny Yatsenyuk (called “Rabbit” by his citizens) couldn’t find a dozen or so native-born yet not corrupt professionals for his government.
Now three former foreigners—ex-American Natalia Yaresko (Minister for Finance), ex-Lithuanian Aivaras Abromavičius (Minister For Economy and Trade) and ex-Georgian Alexander Kvitashvili (Minister for Public Health)—are firmly established in their new cabinets. They are just the beginning. They gave up their U.S. and European passports with only two benefits in return: a $200-a-month salary and the chance to build a prosperous new Ukraine.
In a strange twist of fate, the Ukrainian ministers during their meetings now have to speak hated Russian—former foreigners do not speak Ukrainian well enough and locals do not speak English at the level necessary for complicated discussions on how to save a Ukraine economy that is disappearing before their eyes.
The problems they are facing are overwhelming. The new minister for economy, Mr. Abromavičius, knows that the country is in fact bankrupt. “To expect that we are going to produce real as opposed to declarative incentive programs is unrealistic,” he declared. In other words, the new Ukrainian budget is nothing but a piece of paper. But without this piece of paper there will be no new money from the European Bank and the IMF.
The first steps he has taken so far are controversial.
On January 5, the new minister for economy appointed former Estonian Jaanika Merilo—a young dark-haired beauty—as his advisor on foreign investments, improvement of business climate in Ukraine, coordination of international programs and so on. Directly after her appointment, the young lady put online not her resume or a program for Ukrainian financial stabilization but a series of candid shots that display her long legs, plump lips and prominent cleavage. In some shots, she places a knife to her lips a la Angelina Jolie and sits on the chair a la Sharon Stone.
Ms. Merilo, too, forfeited her European passport in the hope of a better future for her new Motherland.
By law, double citizenship is not permitted for a Ukrainian governmental official, but, as often happens in Ukraine, for some there is always another way around. The governor of Dnepropetrovsk region, oligarch Igor Kolomoisky, for example, has three citizenships.
As exhilarating winds of change swept through the Ukrainian government, Western newspapers giddily reported the fact that after the last elections for the first time in decades there would be no Communists in the Ukrainian Parliament. But that means all possible organized opposition to the current president and prime minister is gone.
Instead, the new Rada has a big group of parliamentarians of very uncertain political loyalties and even dubious mental state—former warlords and street activists who distinguished themselves during street fights and tire burnings.
These government rookies are sometimes turning to strange ways of self-promotion, now within the walls of the Parliament.
One new face in the Rada—leader of the Right Sector ultra-nationalist party and former warlord Dmytro Yarosh—admitted in a January interview with Ukrainian TV that he caresses a real hand grenade in his pocket while inside the Rada. Because he is MP, the security personnel has no right to check his pockets. They just ask if he has anything dangerous on his person and he says no. The reason to have a hand grenade on his body is that there are too many enemies of Ukraine within the MP crowding him during the voting process. He is not afraid, of course. But when the time comes, he will use this grenade and with a bit of luck he will take a lot of them with him if he dies.
Ukrainian MPs Yuri Beryoza and Andrei Levus, also former warlords and members of radical parties, became notorious last December after publicly applauding the terrorist attack in the Russian city of Grozny—an attack in which 14 policemen were killed. “On our eastern borders our brothers are coming out from under Russia’s power. It’s normal. These are the allies of Ukraine,” said Mr. Beryoza. This is the same fellow who had earlier promised that the Ukrainian army would soon take Moscow. Andrei Levus proposed Russia withdraw all of her “punishers” from the “People’s Republic of Ichkeria” (i.e. Chechnya) immediately.
Another former warlord, former member of social-national party and today’s Ukrainian MP Igor Mosiychuk said to the journalists that Ukraine, “being in the state of war, must stimulate the opening of the second front in the Caucuses, in Middle Asia” against Russia. In the scandalous video, which has been viewed 2.5 million times, he unloaded an assault rifle into the portrait of the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov ranting, “Ramzan, you have sent your dogs, traitors into our land. We have been killing them here and we will come after you. We will come after you to Grozny. We will help our brothers to free Ichkeria from such dogs like you. Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the free Ichkeria!”
Despite this bravado, the personal security for all three MPs had to be increased—at high cost to the cash-starved country—after the Chechen leader promised to bring them to justice in Russia for incitement of terrorism.
Rada deputy Anton Gerashchenko, who also serves as an advisor to Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, called US president Barack Obama a ‘political midget’ or ‘dwarf,’ a ‘shot-down pilot’ and says that Obama is in ‘ostrich position.’
While it may be tempting to dismiss these words as the ravings of former warlords who have been traumatized by war, worrisome shifts of the political mindset have been appearing in the mainstream of the Ukrainian political establishment.
Anton Geraschenko is the poster boy of the next generation of Ukrainian politicians. He holds an important position as the advisor to the minister for internal affairs, executing the role of the Ministry’s spokesman. This 36-year-old, well-educated member of the Parliament is a familiar face on TV, and a darling of the nation’s political talk shows. He is well-spoken and gives elaborate interviews on every political subject to all major Ukrainian newspapers.
Last Friday, while on his trip to the U.S., Mr. Gerashchenko published two controversial posts on his Facebook page, which could be considered very revealing from the perspective of the changing mood in the Ukrainian political class toward the United States.
In the first, Mr. Gerashchenko praised a George Soros article in which the 84-year-old financier is “flying high” like an eagle “over the pettiness of Obama and other political dwarfs.” Mr. Gerashchenko blamed Mr. Obama and other “political dwarfs” for not realizing that “Putin’s actions towards Ukraine are the tectonic shifts in the world history, much bigger in scale than those that were the results of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 in New York and Washington.” According to Mr. Gerashchenko, George Soros lost all hope that “Barack Obama will give a chance to the people of the United States to give large-scale economical assistance to the people of Ukraine, not the miserable hand-outs that have been ten times less than the help that was given to Iraq or Afghanistan.” Mr. Gerashchenko vented his frustration at Mr. Obama for not giving Ukraine money on the scale of the Marshall Plan or the aid packages that were given to rebuild Japan after WWII or South Korea after the Korean War.
According to his post, Mr. Gerashchenko believes that the United States has the obligation to give to the Ukraine enough money so the people of “occupied Crimea and Donbass in a maximum of three or five years would dig tunnels and destroy walls and barbed-wire fences, bursting into the territory of prosperous Free Ukraine … looking for jobs, social assistance, high quality of living – as a counterweight to the Mordor which the Russian Federation will definitely have become” (‘total catastrophe’) under the leadership of “Putler.” (“Putler” being ‘Putin’ and ‘Hitler’ combined into one word—a popular new term among Ukraine’s new political class.)
The Facebook post by the young Ukrainian politician created an uproar in both Ukraine and Russia—but Western media preferred to look the other way.
Inspired by his sudden notoriety, Mr. Gerashchenko posted one more rant on the same subject later on the same day in which he elaborated his ideas even farther.
“Yes, Obama is a political dwarf because it looks like he does not grasp the full scale the consequences of Putin’s capture of Crimea. Because last spring and in the beginning of last summer Obama took the ‘ostrich’s position’ and preferred not to see the Putin’s aggression on the continental part of the Ukraine. In the U.S.A., Barack Obama for his indecisive actions and lost positions in foreign politics is called ‘lame duck’ which is analogous to our expression ‘shot-down pilot’. And this name is well deserved. Barack Obama will never be put in the same row with such great U.S. Presidents as Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan. And even with Bill Clinton …”
In his second post Mr. Gerashchenko went on to say that he was expressing not only his own feelings but the attitude of a significant part of the Ukrainian population, “which considers Obama’s actions unworthy of the leader of the most powerful nation in the world, the one that made Ukraine give up its nuclear status … Instead of decisive actions, from March on we have seen nothing but declarations that the White House is ‘very concerned,’ expresses its concerns’ and also ‘deeply worried’ by the situation in our country.”
By Mr. Gerashchenko’s light, President Putin’s entire operation in Crimea and Donbass was possible only because Mr. Putin knew that Mr. Obama would never risk any strong moves to stop him. According to this star of Ukrainian politics, America gave “only” $1 billion to Ukraine but Mr. Gerashchenko and the like view this as a pittance. Instead, they want a big slice of the hundreds of billions that the U.S. has spent on war from 2001-2014 in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.
These revealing and troubling posts were deleted within hours on the same day they appeared. Deleted or not, Mr. Gerashchenko, as well as some significant number of Ukrainian politicians, rant at Mr. Obama for not doing what George Soros wants him to do—immediately spend $50 billion of U.S. and E.U. taxpayers’ money on building an immediate paradise in Ukraine. George Soros’ motives could be pragmatic, of course. Some evil tongues have been saying that the financier’s arguments for the bailout of a falling Ukrainian economy by the U.S. and European taxpayers have roots not in his love for freedom around the world. They say that he has a lot of the Ukrainian government’s bonds in his portfolio and in the case of Ukraine’s national default he will lose billions.
Ironically, the biggest winner of a significant and prompt infusion of Western money into Ukraine would be the hated “Putler.” Just last week, Russia, strapped for cash itself as the ruble plummets, started to spread rumors that it is considering demanding early repayment of its $3 billion 2014 loan to Ukraine because the conditions of the loan demand such a step in the event that the national debt of Ukraine exceeds 60 percent of its GDP. By now the national debt of Ukraine is around 70 percent of its GDP and the prognosis is that by the end of this year it will be around 90 percent of its GDP. If any significant amount of money is given to Ukraine, Russia will immediately start sucking out a big part of it as Ukrainian gas and other energy bills will finally be paid on time … to Russia.
Mr. Gerashchenko’s scandalous FB posts are gone, but the questions raised by them still remain. Will the Ukrainian political class turn away from the U.S. and the West if the generosity of the U.S. taxpayers does not match the nebulous expectations of the reformers in the Ukrainian government? Are the Ukrainians ready to rely mostly on themselves on the long and painful journey of building their own independent nation? Amid all the reform talk and the importing of attractive foreign “advisors,” one cannot but wonder if it’s nothing more than camouflage for the same old Ukrainian game—to convince the world to give, as Mr. Gerashchenko’s first Facebook post put it, just one more “large-scale economical assistance.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story stated that oligarch Igor Kolomoisky is governor of Zaporozhe region. He is actually governor of Dnepropetrovsk region. The Observer regrets the error.